Is the Islamic State’s violence more moral than the West’s?
The use of machetes to chop down one’s enemy has a particular effect when broadcast over social media. There is a certain visceral response to watching someone slowly executed with medieval weaponry that seems somehow more shocking than seeing photos of bombing victims’ body parts. The Islamic State’s use of the machete appears to be a retreat to a certain level of barbarism that is virtually unheard of these days (that is, if you completely ignore what’s been going on in Mexico for the last decade.) My question, though, is whether it is more barbaric to chop someone’s head off with a machete, someone who has been identified as an enemy of the state, than it is to shoot missiles or drop bombs on enemies, even if those bombs and missiles might kill innocents who just happened to be nearby?
Collateral damage is something that we claim to want to avoid when going to war, yet so many of the thousands of people killed by the United States, Britain and other allies in the War on Terror and its sister wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were not enemy combatants and posed no risk to Western Countries. It’s hard to find someone less deserving to die than an Iraqi child that just happened to be in the wrong place when the bombs started dropping. Yet, the technology we have developed for committing acts of violence is now so disconnected from the people whose lives it ruins, it is very easy for most people in the Western World to completely ignore the consequences of such technology. Especially when we have “smart” bombs and unmanned drones, we can pretend that acts of murder carried out on our behalf are not all that bad, because we didn’t really intend to harm people. (Although, I don’t really see how war can have any other intention besides that, but we don’t want to believe our wars themselves are unjustified.)
I’ve trolled Sam Harris a lot lately, but that’s because his ideas are so bad, I feel like they keep needing rebuttals. He has written and spoken about how he believes collateral damage is immoral and one of the biggest questions facing leaders who “have” to go to war. Of course, the premises are skewed in this assumption, because WWII is arguably the only time the United States really had to go to war, but revenge for September 11th or whatever reason we’ve been lighting up the Middle East for the last 14 years, seems enough of a justification for most folks.
Well, for Mr. Harris and other phony humanitarians, my challenge is whether you would support scaling back on drone strikes and missiles, which are very imperfect in their targeting, and use a more perfect weapon: the machete. If American soldiers were only armed with machetes, there would be no collateral damage when we went to war. Only guilty people would be killed, because a machete can only kill one person at a time, and it takes some effort.
Everyone the Islamic State kills is someone they believe deserves to die. Now, I don’t agree with them about whom they think should die and who should live, but if they sincerely believe they are doing the right thing then they are very effective in killing (almost) only those who they have found, through their particularly bleak logic, are guilty. When we invade, wage war, or just remotely bomb other nations, all sorts of people we never “meant” to kill end up dying anyway. We don’t even have to convince ourselves that those people deserve to die, just that whatever warmongering we’ve been up to is justified in and of itself.
Is more high-tech, but less precise, technology really what separates the “barbarians” from the “rational politicians”? Is the fact that we continue to kill more people with our warmongering than anyone else worth pointing out? Would the Islamic State even exist if we hadn’t bombed Iraq back to the stone-age and then done nothing to clean it up? Is using our more “advanced” technology to target and kill Islamic State members (while likely blowing up a lot of innocent people nearby) going to do anything more than create an even more extreme, un-fightable reactionary group?